The unpredictable power of nature on Jeju is not to be trifled with. It’s easy to see why everyone hires a car and why deviation from the path is not advised. So, how do you get people to stick to the path? Make the off-road look terrifying, which on Jeju needs no human intervention.
A bit of history. Approximately two million years ago, an underwater volcano spewed out enough lava for it to eventually rise up out of the sea and form the main body of Jeju Island. Another million years of volcanic activity, including the eruption of a huge magma chamber under the sea floor, shaped the island’s geographical make-up further. Around 300,000 years ago, more volcanic activity created Mount Halla, the volcano in the centre of the island, and several smaller cones. Clouds got in the way of a good photo while I was there.
Since then, the volcanic activity stopped and weathering and erosion took over, shaping the island into what it is today. Jeju is a theatre of war that has been hosting battles between nature and the elements for millions of years. Black pig BBQ restaurants are but a tiny, delicious blip in its history.
Away from Jeju City in the north, Seogwipo in the south, and the copious amounts of tacky museums and golf courses, large areas of the island are wild and untamed. Colors invade your eyesight - bottomless, volcanic blacks from the basalt strewn everywhere, and a myriad of greens from the rich vegetation.
Nicknamed South Korea’s Hawaii, Jeju’s economy is largely propped up by tourism. There are supposedly almost 200 flights a day from Seoul alone. Unfortunately, the influx of visitors is having a huge effect on the island’s bio-diversity and thus damaging the sights that people are so eager to come and see.
Ten golf courses were built on Jeju between 2004 and 2007. Much of the island became a World Natural Heritage Site in 2007, but that didn’t stop a large cruise port recently built in the south, leading to further forest reclamation and destruction to both land-based habitats and marine life. Bad news for the animals themselves, but also for local fishermen and Jeju’s famous Haenyeo free divers, whose livelihood depends on these ecosystems.
Plans are also in place for a second airport to be built in the south, which will reportedly triple the number of tourists by 2035.
Despite this development, there is still so much natural beauty on Jeju that it’s impossible to see everything in three days - especially if you haven’t rented a car. Relying on taxis with no Korean skills made getting around a real hassle. So much so that I missed out seeing features like the Manjangul Lava Tube, Seongsan Ilchulbong peak/crater, and the awesome-looking Jeongbang Waterfall that drops directly into the ocean.
I did as much as anyone could though, starting with Cheonjeyon Valley that is home to several different features. The first was this pool surrounded by mind-bending rock formations.
The river then snakes off towards the southern coast, eventually arriving at Cheonjeyon’s main waterfall.
The intricately designed Seonimgyo Bridge arches across the valley, with a great view from the middle.
A third waterfall can be seen from a viewing point further down the trail.
Jusangjeolli Cliffs were a short walk along the coast; an area created by lava being blasted into the sea and rapidly cooling, then being pummeled by waves for hundreds of thousands of years. Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland was created in a similar way.
Day two began with the news that some of the clouds were apparently due to subside in the afternoon. Time to trek up Mount Halla through the lush forest that covered South Korea’s second highest peak, in the hope that some views would appear higher up.
Surprisingly though, it was the scenes underneath the canopy that were the most impressive. Everything felt so crisp and vibrant; I felt like I should have been choking on the fog if it weren’t so refreshing. Heavy rainforest vibes.
Above the tree line there wasn’t as much to see. The top of Mount Halla was hidden behind the cloud, and a lot of the foliage had been burned away in a forest fire a few years back caused by someone dropping a cigarette. Strict no-smoking laws now apply.
After basically giving up on a spectacular view, a half-decent one began to emerge from the mist on the descent.
The half-decent one then turned into a very decent one.
These towering rocks that can be viewed from the Yeongsil trail down from the peak of the volcano are referred to as the 500 generals. Legend has it that a mother died after drowning in a pot of boiling soup that she was cooking for her 500 sons, who all proceeded to eat the soup because they were unaware she had fallen in… a cheerful tale of cannibalism for all the family. When the sons eventually found out what had happened, they were so stricken with grief that they all travelled to Mount Halla and turned into rocks – the 500 generals.
Before flying home on day three, checking out a couple of Jeju’s many beaches seemed necessary. First up was a big surfing beach in the south called Jungmun. The weather wasn’t great, but these beaches are teeming with swimmers and sunbathers when the sun comes out and the wind dies down.
Gwakji Beach in the north was the final stop. I arrive with my bag packed, ready to go straight to the airport after a quick 30-minute reconnaissance. Then boom, the best weather of the weekend suddenly appeared and blazing sunshine hit the beach. Jeju’s meteorological system has a sense of humor, it seems.
Jeju is a beautiful island, no doubt. The unfortunate bits of tackiness like the Teddy Bear Museum, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not house of shite, and not one, not two, but three sex museums on a rock half the size of Rhode Island are probably preordained in a place that has such a quick turnaround of visitors. Look beyond that stuff though (not a hard thing to do), and you will find a great place to reconnect with nature that’s basically right on Shanghai’s doorstep.
The average cost of a return flight from Pudong to Jeju with a budget airline like Spring or Juneyao is about 1,000rmb, depending on how far in advance you book. That’s about the cost of a return train ticket from Shanghai to Beijing. It also only takes 90 minutes to get there and even less to get back due to favorable winds.
In 2016, Jeju received 3.1 million Chinese tourists, which made up 80% of total visitors that year. This number is so high because Chinese citizens don’t need the same visa that is required for mainland Korea, but also because it’s only 537km away - about one tenth of the length of The Great Wall.
Even though the number of Chinese visitors fell dramatically in 2017 due to a package-tour ban by the Chinese government over a political spat, getting there from Shanghai is still pretty cheap, so flying is definitely the best option.
Hiring a car is extremely beneficial. You need to have an International Driving Permit though, which is annoying. If you don’t have this permit, you are relying on taxis, which is also annoying because they are few and far between, costs will rack up, and the driver will almost definitely speak zero English. Or Chinese for that matter. There is a public bus system that can be navigated, but it may require some help from locals or other tourists. The currency is South Korean Won: right now, 100rmb is worth about 17,000 won.
Where to Stay
There are hotels everywhere, but most are located near Jeju City and the airport in the north, or down in Seogwipo in the south. Those staying in the north have the benefit of being close to the airport and the city's nightlife, restaurant scene etc, and there are also a bunch of decent beaches along the coast there too. The south of the island is arguably more scenic though, with many of the interesting cliffs, beaches and waterfalls residing there. If you are on the island for more than three days, it wouldn't be a bad idea to split your time between the two locations. There are also many guesthouses and villas dotted around the more rural areas; a quick bit of research on TripAdvisor or booking.com will give you a good idea.